Tag Archives: Eric Schlosser

From Fast Food Nation to Pro Food Ventures

In 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company published a book by Eric Schlosser titled Fast Food Nation –The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Much like the work of Upton Sinclair in his 1906 title The Jungle, Mr. Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist exposed how the explosive growth of fast food in America had “hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad.”

For a handful of people, this book provided enough incentive to act, but nowhere near the critical mass needed to show up on most radar screens. That started to change with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006 and the 2009 release of Food, Inc., a food documentary incorporating much of the work of Schlosser and Pollan. Still, unless you were seeking out information on America’s industrial food system, and specifically how it was negatively impacting health, regional economies, and the environment or global trade, you probably had no idea that there were significant problems with America’s abundant food system.

TIME Magazine changed that with its August 21, 2009 cover story titled Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. TIME brought the story of industrial food to mainstream America through its 40 million readers and Web users worldwide. As America’s most trusted new source, it shifted the balance of the debate about our need to reform our food system toward the sustainable food advocates that have been waging a noble, but slow campaign. Here are some highlights from TIME describing how ripe the time is for innovations in how we grow, sell and prepare food in America:

  • “…our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.”
  • “And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous.” • “…obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills.”
  • “With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later.”
  • “…quantity of fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.”
  • “…about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.”

When you consider this was presented to at least 40 million Americans, a vast majority who don’t know where their food comes from, you get a sense of how this single article will likely impact the evolution of sustainable food. The TIME article’s author specifically states, “So what will it take for sustainable food production to spread? It’s clear that scaling up must begin with a sort of scaling down — a distributed system of many local or regional food producers as opposed to just a few massive ones.”

As sustainable food discussions move into the mainstream, so will the opportunities for entrepreneurs and existing companies to bring to market innovative approaches to selling higher quality, healthier foods to increasing percentages of consumers, businesses and institutions. As these companies grow, they have an increasingly realistic chance to break the near death grip that industrial food has put on America’s food system:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2% of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67%. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.”
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of >80% of country’s beef and three of these same four companies joined a 4th in processing >60% of country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide >50% of our chicken supply. Same for turkey meat.
  • Food Processors: The Top 50 U.S. processors accounted for $326 billion or ~25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs, Danone, etc., and you fast approach a majority of the market.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On global scale, the USDA reports “Top 15 global supermarket companies account for >30% of sales.”

There are already examples of sustainable food innovations throughout the food chain, from Will Allen’s Growing Power to an alliance between Good Natured Family Farms and Ball Food Stores, to name a few. Early pioneers, with dirt on their hands, lessons learned and progress made, played a critical role in blazing trails for new ventures. Some of those companies have grown dramatically, e.g., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR; market cap of ~$2.5 billion). Others have been acquired by larger companies, e.g., Stonyfield Yogurt (acquired by Groupe Danone), Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), Burt’s Bees (The Clorox Company). Still others have remained independent.

The next wave of ProFood start-ups will have the advantage of leveraging the many lessons learned by these pioneers. Unlike earlier sustainable food entrepreneurs, this next-generation will also have the benefit of a growing number of mission-driven investors showing up sustainable food conferences, e.g., Slow Money Alliance and New Seed Advisors, looking to drive sustainable food forward.

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The Evolution of Pro Food

Like most ideas, Pro Food didn’t just happen. It was the culmination of nearly a decade of thinking, reading and talking about food and related systems, especially over the last six months.

Pro Food’s timing had the good fortune of intersecting with several well established sustainable food movements, including organic food, school lunch programs, Slow Food and a series of thought-provoking food documentaries (e.g., Food Inc, FRESH and King Corn) and investigative books (e.g., Fast Food Nation, Omnivore’s Dilemma, The End of Food).

The following series of blog posts provide the reader with a sense of how Pro Food emerged over the last four months, including several posts that build on the core principles put forward in Pro Food Is, the defining post of the Pro Food idea.

Chronological List of Key Pro Food Posts:

  • Is Organic Food the Answer? (March 18, 2009) – This initial post on Every Kitchen Table frames the need for new food systems connecting more consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. It highlights retail interfaces, sustainability labeling and narrow food product offerings. Read more.
  • Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough (March 27, 2009) – Much attention is being given to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, but these programs are not a scalable solution in dealing with large-scale food system problems. The post provides lessons learned that can be applied to new, scalable solutions. Read more.
  • 10 Ways to Save Real Food (April 14, 2009) – This post offered the first comprehensive list of strategies for attacking what Michael Pollan refers to as “nutritionism”, an effective approach used by food manufacturers to make highly-processed “edible foodlike substances” appear to be on par with wholesome real foods. The list touched on labeling, marketing claims, access, school food and low-income programs, among others. Read more.
  • Can Farmers Markets & CSA Farms Really Grow Sustainable Food? (April 30, 2009) – Direct to consumer food sales are providing numerous valuable lessons for building regionally-focused sustainable food systems. Unfortunately, as this post spells out in detail, they are up against heavily subsidized programs for growing commodity crops as ingredients in highly-processed foods, which received nearly $17 billion in 2006. Read more.
  • 10 Reasons Why “Local”  is Challenging Industrial Food (May 14, 2009) – The sustainable food debate has tended to focus on industry and advocates.  This post begins moving toward the inclusive principle in Pro Food to find effective solutions to meet the needs of consumers based on where they live and what they value. It also introduces transparency and general themes on decentralized food. Read more.
  • Closing the Farm to Table Knowledge Gap (June 19, 2009) – One of the largest factors in allowing our food system to get to where it is today, a system too complex and concentrated for most people to understand, is the gap resulting from people trading our historic farming knowledge for cheap, convenient food. This post focuses on the impacts this is having on our health, the environment and our livelihoods. Read more.
  • Pro Food Is (June 30, 2009) – After six months of intensive focus on food systems and entrepreneurial approaches to helping improve markets for sustainable foods, seven core principles emerged in this landmark post. The intent of Pro Food is to drive these principles into mainstream entrepreneurship and accelerate the development of successful alternative food systems. Read more.
  • Building Out Pro Food (July 6, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: With the release of Pro Food Is, Zachary Cohen spells out how we can now move beyond the traditional language of American politics, e.g., us versus them, bad versus good, etc. Next up is how to most effectively build out Pro Food from a modest statement of principles into something greater. Read more.
  • Why Pro Food Will Succeed (July 7, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zachary explains how the sustainable food movement is at the point in its evolution where new leadership is needed to push things to the next level. It is at times like this that individuals/entrepreneurs seize the moment and use the tumult to their advantage, which is at the core of Pro Food’s mission. Read more.
  • The First Pro Food Product? (July 8, 2009) – From Fredo Martin’s ihatetomentionit blog: Fredo Martin asks what form Pro Food might take in his thought provoking post. At a minimum, it will be important to relate Pro Food to each stage of the food chain in order to propel alternative food systems forward. Read more.
  • Slow Food with Entrepreneurial Twist (July 8, 2009) – The Slow Food movement has done much to reestablish links between food and terrior (location-specific traits) around the globe. In the US, where the industrial system was already well established, the movement faced an entrenched, centralized infrastructure, unlike what is typical around the globe. Pro Food stands apart in its efforts to revitalize the entrepreneurial side of the American food system. Read more.
  • The Five Stones of Pro Food (July 23, 2009) – With the introduction of Pro Food and the foundation basically set, this post shifts gears by focusing on the things that make Pro Food business ventures unique in the food business landscape. Establishing such competitive advantages will be a key part of realizing the Pro Food vision. Read more.
  • The Pro Food Primer (August 4, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zach offers up a great, more in-depth and narrative-based look at the history of Pro Food. Read more.

This posts provides a Pro Food reading list of sorts, but the idea of Pro Food is surely much greater than any one list or collection of people. Those of us working at the forefront of Pro Food look forward to many new voices joining our efforts. If you have a Pro Food blog post or article that you want us to help promote, please email me at robert.b.smart (at) gmail.com.

Every Kitchen Table and Pro Food are proud supporters of FoodRenegade’s Fight Back Fridays.

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Fake Smells for Fake Foods…Yum!

In the “I-didn’t-think-it-could-get-much-worse” category,  Peter Harrop, Chairman of IDTechex, announced a new technology that will soon be hitting supermarket shelves:

Smell-emitting labels that will release tantalizing (engineered, not real) scents of food as shoppers walk by

His mother must be so proud!  After all, her son is about to unleash on unsuspecting consumers yet another way to manipulate them into more processed food, this time through their noses.  Of course, it isn’t the first time that artifical means have been used to build cravings and loyalty in consumers.  As Eric Schlosser wrote about in Fast Food Nation:

In 1990, amid a barrage of criticism over the amount of cholesterol in its fries, McDonald’s switched to pure vegetable oil. This presented the company with a challenge: how to make fries that subtly taste like beef without cooking them in beef tallow. A look at the ingredients in McDonald’s french fries suggests how the problem was solved. Toward the end of the list is a seemingly innocuous yet oddly mysterious phrase: “natural flavor.” That ingredient helps to explain not only why the fries taste so good but also why most fast food — indeed, most of the food Americans eat today — tastes the way it does.

People usually buy a food item the first time because of its packaging or appearance. Taste usually determines whether they buy it again. About 90 percent of the money that Americans now spend on food goes to buy processed food. The canning, freezing, and dehydrating techniques used in processing destroy most of food’s flavor — and so a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable. Without this flavor industry today’s fast food would not exist. The names of the leading American fast-food chains and their best-selling menu items have become embedded in our popular culture and famous worldwide. But few people can name the companies that manufacture fast food’s taste.

It looks like manufactured smells are about to do for highly processed, edible foodlike substances what “natural flavors” did for fast food.  Perhaps I should invent a smell neutralizer (or nose plugs) for anyone trying to eat better.

1.8 Million Years of Cooking

Today’s New York Times includes a short, but fascinating interview, “A Conversation with Richard Wrangham: From Studying Chimps, a Theory on Cooking.”

What caught my attention was his theory, which he apparently expands on in his upcoming book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” that cooking, rather than tool making and meat eating, was the main factor in man’s early evolution.

How Cooking Made Us Human (Richard Wrangham)

How Cooking Made Us Human (Richard Wrangham)

…our large brain and the shape of our bodies are the product of a rich diet that was only available to us after we began cooking our foods. It was cooking that provided our bodies with more energy than we’d previously obtained as foraging animals eating raw food.

Studying modern chimpanzees, he noticed that much of the chimps diet consisted of “extremely fibrous foods,” which required a lot of time sitting around chewing.  According to Mr. Wrangham, once early humans learned to cook, their evolution accelerated since their diet was now “richer, healthier and required less eating time.”

Sounds like fast food has been around a lot longer than I thought.  Perhaps Eric Schlosser needs to write a prequel to Fast Food Nation.

There are clearly differences between earlier fast (“less eating time”) food and today’s highly efficient and arguably unsustainable cousin is community.

…once you had communal fires and cooking and a higher-calorie diet, the social world of our ancestors changed, too. Once individuals were drawn to a specific attractive location that had a fire, they spent a lot of time around it together. This was clearly a very different system from wandering around chimpanzee-style, sleeping wherever you wanted, always able to leave a group if there was any kind of social conflict.

Now compare these community oriented, almost slow food type eating experiences with today’s fast food diet:

[Author asked if today’s man has adapted to McDonald’s, pizza]  I think we’re adapted to our diet. It’s that our lifestyle is not. We’re adapted in the sense that our bodies are designed to maximize the amount of energy we get from our foods. So we are very good at selecting the foods that produce a lot of energy. However, we take in far more than we need. That’s not adaptive.

What really amazes me is that today’ man, with our vast technologies and industries, can’t figure out how to get families to spend a lot of time together eating richer, healthier food.  Is it possible that our industrial food system doesn’t care about such things?  Regardless, what is the significance of American’s either eating out or eating prepared meals nearly half the time?  Is this putting the species at risk of devolving?

OK, so I’m having a little fun with this. There are serious problems in our food system and I believe that reversing our migration away from our kitchens and being able to cook sustainable foods has the potential to be the “main factor” in improving our health and the health of our planet, building stronger regional economies, and strengthening our families.

A tall order, but far better than the typical response of throwing technology at the problem.

Related Information and Links:

30 Years of Messing Up Food

Over the weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch King Corn, a documentary following an acre of corn.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do.  Like Michael Pollan’s books, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it helps connect the dots regarding U.S. food policy, industrialized food, fast food, and more.

King Corn also inspired me to dust off my copy of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the book that in many ways sparked my interest in sustainable food systems.  As a history of the fast food industy, I am hoping a reread will help me better understand fast food’s role in creating today’s unsustainable food system, especially before the early 1970s when U.S. agriculture policy took a 180 degree turn.

At this point, here are what I believe are the major contributors that have created the food “mess” we find ourselves today (What’s missing?):

  1. Urban Sprawl – The U.S. interstate system, cheap oil, and the rapid growth of the auto industry contributed to a significant migration of people out of America’s cities to the suburbs.  I am sure there were other contributors.  Regardless, this exodus provided the perfect accelerator for a young fast food industry to move beyond its humble roots to the mainstream.  Soon, fast food joints were popping up at every interstate exit.  With such significant growth opportunities in sight, fast food industry leaders recognized the need for even cheaper food to fund its expansion.
  2. U.S. Agriculture Policy – In the early 1970s, under Ag Secretary Earl L. Butz, and as pointed out in King Corn, the U.S. shifted from a policy of paying farms not to produce, to subidizing over production.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Butz maintained that a free-market policy, encouraging farmers to produce more and to sell their surplus overseas, could bring them higher prices.”
  3. 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act –  This Act of Congress required that any food product that wasn’t the real thing must include the word “imitation” on its label.  Around the same time that Secretary Butz was moving agriculture through its 180 degree swing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quitely repealed the Act, thus giving food manufacturers something they had been lobbying for for decades.  Without such labeling, something like Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread, along with its very long list of ingredients could be classified as “real” bread the same way as freshly baked bread with 4-5 whole food ingredients. [Thanks to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for pointing out this critical policy change (quote).]
  4. High Fructose Corn Syrup Industry – In my recent post titled Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?, I highlighted a 12-cent shift in the allocation of consumer expenditures on food since the early 1980.  That 12 cents of every dollar now goes to the “food marketing system” instead of farmers who saw their share go from 31 cents of every dollar to 19 cents (a 40% decline).  What I learned from King Corn is that this shift began around the same time that significant corn surpluses motivated large investments in developing cheaper high fructose corn syrup, which was helped by declines in corn prices.

The result of all of this is an abundance of cheap food in America, much of which would be better defined as fast or fake cheap food.  Of course Earl Butz, during an on-screen interview in King Corn, was proud of the fact that we can now feed ourselves with 16-17 percent of our take-home pay, leaving us more money to spend on other things.  On the surface, this makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, increasing amounts of  our money now goes toward rapidly increasing health care costs, which in large part are due to our deterioting health caused by what we eat.  If it hasn’t happened already, I’m betting before too long that consumer spending on food plus health care will leave us pretty much where we started – tight family budgets and a lower quality of life.

Seems like the perfect time to shift from our “Quantity Economy” to one of quality.  Granted it likely means eating less and paying more, but the alternative is not sustainable.

Related Information and Links: